Updated: Aug 24
MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON (Dean Fleischer Camp, 2022); Jenny Slate Live Q&A; Screening on 26 August 2022
“My vulnerability is natural and permissible and beautiful to me, and it should remind you of your responsibility to behave like a friend to me and the world.”
–Jenny Slate, Little Weirds
Twelve years ago, before monetized content and social media influencers became the behemoth of our daily existence, two up and coming talents, comedian Jenny Slate and filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp, who were dating at the time, created a 4 minute video about a cute little shell named Marcel. Slate had created the voice of Marcel when she and Camp and four other friends were sharing a hotel room at a wedding and it felt a bit cramped. The voice emerged as a way to bring humor to discomfort.
Believing the video would only be seen at a small comedy gathering in Brooklyn, the duo posted the video on YouTube at the behest of someone in the audience who wanted to show their mom. 48 million views, 3 presidents, 2 more shorts, one pandemic, a divorce, and half the globe addicted to Tik Tok later, MARCEL THE SHELL is having its feature length debut.
Made using painstaking stop motion animation and motion capture techniques on an indie budget, MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON is holding its own in a theatrical climate that tends to favor blockbuster, CGI driven, action oriented films. Boasting a 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the crustacean caper is winning hearts and minds: “Hilarious and extremely sweet... a feel-good movie that’s not like anything you’ve seen before,” (Vox); “An adorable little film with big life-lessons,”(Newsday); ''[A] sweet, uncomplicated film whose message about self-compassion and community feels especially prescient,'' (Hollywood Reporter).
ONE OF US, ONE OF US, ONE OF US
Technical achievements notwithstanding, much of the film’s popularity is no doubt about Slate’s transcendent performance as Marcel. With a raspy, creakily, quiet little voice, she embodies all of the good hearted, empathetic, optimistic, loving, bold and tender qualities that are Marcel. In less capable hands (shoes?), it’s a performance that could easily veer into high schmaltz, gimmick, and affectation. But it doesn’t. It pierces the heart. “Marcel is the most unassuming and delicate of movies but don’t be shocked if it leaves you in ruins” (New Yorker).
Wanting to act since she was a child (after watching CROSSING DELANCEY, according to interviews), Slate was cast in her first major role in 2014 in Gillian Robespierre’s acclaimed “abortion comedy,” OBVIOUS CHILD, opposite Jake Lacy (who uncharacteristically plays someone likeable). Slate plays a stand-up comedian who puts her whole self on stage, messiness and all, in a part that Robespierre wrote specifically for Slate after seeing one of her live shows. Slate is dynamic, unvarnished, and fully present– qualities we also see in MARCEL.
Since her work in Robespierre’s debut, the comedian-turned-thespian has gone on to perform in many notable roles as voice and live talent in a range of projects including “Girls,” “Parks and Rec,” “Big Mouth,” ZOOTOPIA, “Bob’s Burgers,” EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, and “The Great North.” A Boston native, Slate currently makes her home on the southcoast of Massachusetts, and is married to writer and general store owner, Ben Shattuck. Small town living suits our illustrious neighbor. “I know most of the people who shop [at Davoll’s],” she told People Magazine. “I’ve never had anything like that before, and it makes me feel so cared for.”
CINEMA OF TINY ATTRACTIONS
Miniature objects are innately appealing. Reviewing MARCEL for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis explores the idea that children like to play with miniature setups because it helps them feel agency and control as they find their place in the world. This impulse is beautifully illustrated in the documentary MARWENCOL (Mark Hogencamp, 2010), and the feature WELCOME TO MARWENCOL (Robert Zemeckis, 2018), both about an assault survivor’s ability to heal through his creation of an intricate 1:16 scale World War II town.
Marcel’s miniscule world is less horrific, more enchanting and inventive. A record player becomes a treadmill, bread a crucial part of home décor, a goldfish cracker an entire entrée. But it’s not a world without misfortune and danger. A squirrel can be Godzilla, sock drawers don’t make the best shelters, and having a tennis ball as your primary means of transportation is quite perilous when you live with a dog.
NOT A MOCKUMENTARY
While many refer to the film as a mockumentary, MARCEL may be better categorized as a narrative feature. The story is told from an omniscient, third person’s perspective, not from the perspective of Dean the character who is making a documentary, or from a fictional documentary crew (like in “The Office”). Dean the character is making a documentary. Dean the director made MARCEL the narrative film. Humor is largely derived from the characters, their interactions, and the miniature motif. The audience need not be familiar with the tropes and conventions of the documentary form to be in on the jokes. Further, the film follows narrative conventions. For example, scenes of the man and woman who once lived in Marcel’s domicile are presented as flashbacks, not as documentary re-enactments, nor as footage that Dean the character was somehow there to shoot.
Transforming a short into a feature is no easy task. Longer films can’t succeed as one shtick wonders. While Marcel’s constant questions and replies are hella charming in the shorts (“Guess what I do for adventure? I hang glide on a Dorito”), this would be tedious for 90 minutes. MARCEL the feature’s fully developed plot, character arcs, and cinematic strategies such as a moving camera and subjective perspectives maintain engagement and create a compelling dramatic trajectory.
BRAVE THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES
Perhaps the film’s greatest appeal is its vulnerability. Marcel shows resilience and fortitude in the face of tragedy and loss, and he also has the courage to show sadness and fear, to make mistakes, to sing an Eagles classic. His vulnerability makes him loveable and adorable, and you want to put him in your pocket (BUT DON’T DO THAT!).
Slate and Camp are equally brave, making a film that, in many ways, documents their own love and grief; struggles to hold on, struggles to move on. Marcel’s advice to Dean to spend less time filming and more time connecting wasn’t plucked from thin air. The film’s depictions of loss, disappointment, sorrow, and longing for care and community are born from real life– the detritus of relationships won, and relationships lost. It’s all there, in the frame.
“Vulnerability is not weakness,” writes author and academic Brené Brown. “[I]t’s our greatest measure of courage. People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.”
Here’s to all the brave badasses out there, unafraid to come out of their shells and show their gooey squishy selves to the world. We love you, and we want to be your friend.
MJ Herrup, PhD
Film Curator, Cinema New Bedford